From when to take a test (and which one) to how long you should quarantine, here's everything you should do from the moment you suspect you have COVID-19 without symptoms.
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What Should You Do If You Have Asymptomatic COVID-19? , Woman wearing face mask looking at window. Lockdown, social distancing concept
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With COVID-19 cases surging nationwide due largely in part to the highly transmissible Omicron variant, you're probably wondering what you should do if you do test positive for COVID-19 but don't have any symptoms. And while you might understandably feel relieved to be spared of the myriad of symptoms associated with COVID-19, you still need to be vigilant and proactive to prevent spreading the virus to those around you.

Perhaps even more unsettling: A recent study published in JAMA Network Open found that more than 40 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases around the globe were asymptomatic — an alarming stat given that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed that fully vaccinated folks can spread the virus, even after receiving a third dose. (Thankfully, having received a booster still means it's less likely you'll experience severe illness, as multiple recent studies have shown.)

But what should you do if you test positive for COVID-19 but are asymptomatic? Allow the experts to explain.

What to Know About COVID Testing If You're Asymptomatic

Knowing when to test if you don't have symptoms can be tricky, as well as the fact that finding a COVID-19 test can feel like an impossible feat due to a surge in cases and national supply issues.

Broadly speaking, COVID-19 tests fall into two categories, explains Gwen Murphy, Ph.D., M.P.H., executive director of epidemiology at LetsGetChecked: molecular diagnostic tests (RT-PCR), which are usually carried out in a lab or a clinic and can identify the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in your system, and antigen tests (aka rapid tests), which can be done in a clinic but are also the kind you can buy to test at home. "Antigen tests are cheap and easy to use, but they are less sensitive than the gold-standard diagnostic lab assays," she says. In other words, these DIY tests are "generally considered less accurate than PCR tests and may miss some cases," Charlene Brown, M.D., public health physician and advisor for Everlywell, previously told Shape. (Related: What You Need to Know About False Positive COVID-19 Test Results)

"The biggest advantage of rapid antigen tests is that they're fast, cheap, and a reliable way for you to find out if you're spreading the virus," adds Vivek Cherian, M.D., a Chicago-based internal medicine physician. "A PCR test is more sensitive and can actually identify an infection sooner, but the downside is that it can take a few days to get your result. So while both tests can be useful, the benefit of a rapid test is that it can prompt a person to isolate sooner, and thereby prevent you from spreading the virus earlier."

And if you don't have symptoms, you might not be sure when, exactly, is the optimal time to test. "The current guidance from the CDC states that vaccinated people should get tested five days after having close contact with an individual with COVID-19," says Dr. Cherian. "That being said, given the Omicron variant's short doubling time, it's reasonable to test earlier than that following possible exposure. Two to four days seems to be more reasonable, and I do anticipate the CDC will eventually update their guidance as Omicron becomes the predominant variant in this country," he notes.

"If you're vaccinated, it's not necessary to be overly cautious and get tested after traveling or being in a large gathering," he says. However, it's important to get tested after a known exposure, regardless of your symptom status. "If your first test is negative after you've been in a high-risk environment or had a known exposure, it's prudent to test again two or three days later." After all, with the unpredictable nature of COVID-19, it's always better to err on the side of caution. (Read more: Everything You Need to Know About Coronavirus Testing)

How Long to Quarantine If You're Asymptomatic

For starters, if you test positive, you do need to isolate yourself, regardless of how well or "normal" you feel. "Anyone testing positive for COVID-19 should remain in isolation and call their doctor if their symptoms worsen or if they have any concerns, particularly those with existing conditions which might mean they are at high risk for complications," explains Murphy.

"If you test positive and are asymptomatic, the current CDC guidelines state you should isolate yourself," adds Dr. Cherian. Until recently, the CDC recommended 10 days of isolation. But on Monday, the organization updated their guidelines to recommend just five days of quarantine for asymptomatic infection, followed by 5 days of wearing a mask when you're around other people. (That's because science has demonstrated that the majority of COVID-19 transmission occurs early in the illness, generally in the 1-2 days prior to and the 2-3 days after symptoms begin.)

As for how to accurately count your days, asymptomatic positive individuals should count the day of the positive viral test as day zero, with day one being the first full day after your positive test. If you never develop symptoms, consider yourself lucky. But if you do develop them before your isolation period is complete, the CDC notes that you'll have to start over to prevent symptomatic spread, making day zero the first day of symptoms and day one the first full day after symptoms develop.

Even if you feel fine, you'll want to stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom from other people in your household, according to the CDC. If that's not possible and you do need to be around others, you'll want to wear a mask to help prevent spread. Avoid sharing household items such as cups, towels, and utensils and steer clear of public transit throughout your isolation period. You'll also want to monitor yourself for symptoms and check in with your doctor if you suddenly worsen or develop severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, extreme fatigue, or severe pain and/or chest pressure. (Related: What to Do If You Think You Have COVID-19)

What to Do Next

"If you test positive, you absolutely should notify everyone you've been in close contact with recently so they can get tested too, and quarantine if necessary," says Dr. Cherian. The CDC notes that close contact constitutes being within 6 feet of an infected person for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period. (And yes, that includes three separate 5-minute exposures.) You'll also want to contact your health provider if you received a positive result through self-testing at home, because having COVID could affect your health risks in the future.

If you make it through your 5-day isolation period without developing symptoms, you should check in with your doctor to see if they recommend retesting. That said, given that recovered individuals can still test positive for the virus weeks to months after initial infection, you do not need to wait until you receive a negative test to end your isolation.

Unfortunately, as the last two years have shown, this virus is a force to be reckoned with. "A threat anywhere is a threat everywhere and this is what we are seeing now with the Omicron variant," says Murphy. "As long as coronavirus is circulating somewhere in the world, there is a threat of a variant developing which evades the vaccines. So getting full vaccination cover across the globe has to be a priority." (Related: Half of COVID-19 Patients Experience Lingering Symptoms for Six Months, Says Study)

"In addition, we know that vaccinated people can still pick up and transmit the virus, so we need to get used to masking, social distancing, and regular testing being part of life for now," she adds. "There is a way out of the pandemic, but it is not coming soon and in the meantime, we need to look after ourselves and our communities."

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it's possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.